Finding my self in France
What did I learn from living in France? Taken out of all familiar contexts, I had to encounter myself anew and see my beliefs in an entirely different light. I came to realize what was relative to my environment and what was truly myself, the things that don’t and won’t change when everything else does. I gave up most of my posessions and most of all, my self possessedness as I came to France, speaking like a Mexican gardener speaks English, with two suitcases full of necessities. Despite a fancy education, I drew upon my mother tongue for my daily bread as an English teacher’s assistant. People knew me only for my actions and what I was able to say; they knew my culture only through movies and pop music; in some ways I remained a stranger even though I found friends and made a temporary home. The accomplishments and attachments that mattered most to me were completely unknown to these people. The many small markers of identity that would be unmistakable in the U.S., like my Lafayette sweatshirt, meant nothing. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said man is the sum of his actions, and I have never found this to be more true than as a stranger in a strange land. I found what was universal and constant, what was relative, cultural, ephemeral, what was definite, fixed, and unchangeable about myself. No matter how long I lived in France, I would not remember learning the fables of La Fontaine as a child, I would always think of the Marseillaise as a horrible chanson de guerre (war song), and seeing the inside of empty, dilapidated churches would make me sad in a way the mostly laique (secular) French can’t really appreciate. In a way we each contain our civilization inside ourselves, no matter how much we perceive ourselves on its outskirts. Being a fan of ACDC or Rihanna just doesn’t say the same things about a French person as an American person, even though the music they listen to is the same.
Becoming bilingual as an adult makes you reflect on the reality behind the words. When you think in another language, you begin to see how the relationships between things are not necessarily what you have always seen. For instance, do you have 23 years or are you 23 years old? Is the action of pulling the same as shooting a gun, throwing a ball, or tearing a tab? In French, all these actions are described by the same word. Some differences in linguistic conventions go beyond what is grammatically correct and correspond to culture. I have whistled, gestured, and made faces to communicate more in one year in France than in my whole life in the U.S. I’ve learned that things that are annoying make French people want to shit, or at least, that is how they describe something as annoying in slang. It is also unnerving to hear yourself think in another language, respond to something in French automatically without hesitation, and realize just how much more animated your body language and facial expressions become. For me, at first it seemed like having another self, and though I really wanted to learn French, seemed like a bit of an intruder that would somehow dilute the real me. Living in another culture and becoming somewhat bicultural, coming to question basics of my American life , like the healthiness of frozen food, also left me feeling off kilter. I eventually reached a point of acceptance where I realized that I’m like eyes that seem blue or green depending on the sky that day- same person doing the seeing but the environment changes how they are seen.
Somehow I became maladroit even when not speaking, or especially when trying not to speak my mind directly. Even my favorite gesture, thumbs up, didn’t mean the same thing so I started to use it less habitually. To me, thumbs up means, “ok, it’s cool, chillax.” To the French, it means “Yiii pee!” Trying to get across what I felt without directly saying it was the most difficult challenge. The best case I can think of is trying to convey a polite but firm refusal, as in, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then I had to gauge whether I had communicated effectively by the person’s reaction. This gets complicated when you have to figure out if the person continuing to insist was actually being pushy or just following a norm unknown to me, like the custom of asking someone if they want a drink twice when they refuse the first time. The actions that speak louder than words still don’t speak clearly.
Communication may be a human constant, and the diversity of its manifestations is the constant change that makes it so. Language, according to some of the latest neuroscience studies, is what makes us really human and separates us from the birds and the bees that have many of the same intellectual capacities but lack the means of putting the information together. Learning a language is one of the most normal human activities that everyone does at least once in their life without questioning. We continue to learn by adopting our own means of self expression throughout our lives, and subconsciously use our little invented words and favorite slang to mark the groups we belong to. How many times do you hear that communication is the key to success in almost every domain of life? A year of not knowing all the words or expressions and always having to look behind them for the meaning will, I think, really help me in the years to come. The struggle to understand and be understood, to connect with others, is one of the prime aspects of the human condition. My challenges this year can only make me more compassionate. I have found greater empathy for people struggling for words and understanding of what some are looking to hide behind words. Being human can seem complicated, but when you realize that we all experience the same emotions and deep desires even if not in the same situations, the simplicity is even more astounding.
I came to France basically afraid of all the choices I would have to make in my adult life: where to live, what job to do, who to spend it with. I realized that the opportunity cost of any one choice is unfathomable, and deeply conscious of the privilege of being able to choose, unlike so many people in this world both near and far. I wanted to know exactly who I was and figure out what I wanted, as independently as possible. I feel that I have succeeded in this task and feel more confident and a l’aise a moi-meme (at ease in myself) than I ever have before. Though my perspective was deconstructed but some vital part of me stayed together over the course of my stay in France, and I now have some idea what will stick no matter where I go and what I do in life. I stopped being afraid to create my life. Though by making one choice I may loose access to a thousand possible worlds, that is the only way to live the one life I have in a way that has meaning for me. And the so-called “mistakes” of the past are just part of that path. And me? Who and what is that? A work in progress that can be lost or captured in translation.